It was the second day on the job for Scott Hoffman and his wife, Nancy. They were taking over management of Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in Ocean Grove, N.J., and were excited to be part of what God was doing along that stretch of the Jersey Shore.
Established by Methodists in 1869, the camp meeting association had hosted worship services, gospel concerts, Bible studies and revivals for more than 100 years. Many of the events were held at the Boardwalk Pavilion, its popular open-air venue located right on the beach. Occasionally, a couple would request the facility for a wedding event.
Such was the case on April 3, 2007, when two women came in and requested the association host their civil union ceremony. The New Jersey state legislature had just passed a bill legalizing civil unions. The association was aware of the legislation but didn’t think it would impact them.
“Everybody knew that churches were exempt from the law,” he said. “We weren’t formally aligned with the Methodist church, but we felt like we were so closely connected, and with our history and our uniqueness and our mission statement, we felt on very solid ground that we were the same as any other church and protected from that law.”
The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting site, located in the township of Neptune, is one of a number of venues across the country that have come under attack for refusing to host same-sex ceremonies. Liberty Ridge Farm owners Cynthia and Robert Gifford of Albany, N.Y., were fined $13,000 last year for declining to host a same-sex wedding on their property. Richard and Betty Odgaard, a Christian couple who ran a wedding chapel in Grimes, Iowa, were forced to pay a $5,000 settlement. The Odgaards lost business and soon had to close their wedding chapel after refusing to host a homosexual wedding.
Hoffman explained to the two women making the request at Ocean Grove that the association followed the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, and hosting the ceremony would violate their moral convictions of marriage as between one man and one woman. The women seemed to understand.
About a week later, the association received a letter in the mail from the New Jersey Department of Civil Rights indicating they were going to be investigated for sexual discrimination and would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The case put the Hoffmans immediately in the line of fire. The Human Rights Commission and Garden State Equality, both strong supporters of the LGBT community, had positioned the case in the media as a hate crime and Scott and Nancy the chief haters, so much so that a previously scheduled homeowners association meeting where Hoffman was scheduled to speak drew more than 200 people instead of the typical 50.
“And they were all very angry,” said Hoffman, who now serves as vice president of donor ministries for BGEA. “We were new to town. We were the hateful ones who were going to ruin the city. They wanted us out of town quickly.”
It was a hard place for this former pastor who, in his 15 years in the pulpit, would lose sleep if he knew just one person in the congregation was upset at him about something. And here, 50 percent of the city hated him before he opened his mouth.
“But the Holy Spirit was phenomenally present,” he said. “It was not my own strength that allowed me to be able to stand up in those meetings and to be the face of the organization.”
Following the investigation by the Civil Rights Department, the state of New Jersey entered the fight on the side of the lesbian couple. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association responded with its own federal suit, filed by Alliance Defending Freedom.
“Religious groups have the right to make their own decisions without government interference,” said Brian Raum, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom. “The government can’t force a private Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs. This action by the state of New Jersey is a gross violation of the First Amendment.”
The case went through several battles, but Ocean Grove eventually lost. The state ruled that since the camp meeting association regularly offered the pavilion to the broader public, it was bound by the state’s Law Against Discrimination from barring civil unions. Ocean Grove decided to no longer host weddings.
Meanwhile, the Hoffmans had immersed themselves in the community. Scott became the chaplain for the fire department and rescue squad and a board member with the local Chamber of Commerce. He also worked closely with the Neptune Police Department and Emergency Management System, and ministered at the local retirement home. In addition, Nancy was closely involved with the Ocean Grove Home Owners Association, and they worked closely with the mayor on the city council’s World Changers project.
Miraculously, they began to experience a forgiveness and acceptance that was reciprocal. “I would say that when we left there, probably 90 percent of the people who had hated us didn’t hate us anymore,” Hoffman said.
In fact, the mayor, who had been a strong critic when he was on the city council, wrote a proclamation before Scott and Nancy left the area, thanking them for their contributions to the city.
“He came to understand our thoughts and our hearts and knew that we were not haters, but that we loved people and were interested in the best interests of not just Ocean Grove but all of Neptune. And we came to the same conclusion about him.”
That five-year controversy brought home to Hoffman the power of God’s unlimited love and understanding.
“We have resigned ourselves in the church that this is just an issue we can’t resolve because it’s such a dichotomy, and denominations are going to continue to split over it,” Hoffman said. “Maybe it is an issue that’s going to be difficult to resolve, but God’s love can transcend the issue. I still cling to that.”
The key is for Christians to stay strong in their convictions; to stand firm, but with love, cultivating an environment ripe for discussion. “We can’t have a self-righteous attitude or holier-than-thou thought process,” Hoffman said. “We have to stand firm from the perspective of Christ’s love; we saw that in Ocean Grove. We didn’t resolve the issue but we were able to live together, side by side, and become friends and have conversation—continued conversation.”